Dan Moller’s Governing Least

Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority is definitely my favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  Dan Moller’s new Governing Least, however, is definitely now my second-favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  The two books have much in common: Both use common-sense ethics to argue for libertarian politics.  Both are calm, logical, and ever-mindful of potential criticisms.  Both strive to persuade reasonable people who don’t already agree with them.  Both are packed with broader insights.  And despite these parallels, both are deeply original.

So what’s most original about Moller’s position?  Instead of focusing on the rights of the victims of coercion, Moller emphasizes the effrontery of the advocates of coercion:

[I]n my account libertarianism emerges from everyday moral beliefs we have about when we are permitted to shift our burdens onto others. In fact, my account intentionally downplays the role of rights, and is motivated by doubts about what we may demand of others, rather than outrage about what others demand of us.

The effrontery is most blatant when you speak in the first person:

Imagine calling a town hall meeting and delivering the following speech:

My dear assembled citizens: I know most of us are strangers, but of late I have fallen on hard times through no fault of my own, by sheer bad luck. My savings are low, and I don’t have friends or family to help. Now as you know, I’ve previously asked for help from you as private citizens, as a matter of charity. But unfortunately that hasn’t been sufficient. Thus, I’m here now to insist that you (yes you, Emma, and you, John) owe me assistance as a matter of justice. It is a deep violation if you don’t work additional hours, take fewer vacations if need be, live in a smaller house, or send your kids to a worse school, in order to help me. Failing to do so is no less an injustice than failing to pay your debts.

Moreover, calling this an injustice means that it’s not enough that you comply with your obligations by working on my behalf. No, I insist that you help me to force your fellow citizens to assist me. It doesn’t matter if these others say to you that they need the money for their own purposes, that they prefer worthier causes, or if they’re just hard-hearted and don’t care. To the extent you care about justice, you must help me to force these others to assist me whether they wish to or not, since that is what is owed me in light of my recent bad luck.

Could you bring yourself to make this speech?

The fundamental objection to Moller’s position, he thinks, is to claim that governments have “emergent moral powers.”  But Moller firmly denies this.  Governments are just groups of people, so they are morally obliged to follow the same moral principles as everyone else.  While this may seem like libertarian question-begging, there’s nothing uniquely libertarian about it:

It is notable that many who wish to block rights-based objections to state action are nevertheless eager to enter their own moral objections to what the state does. Many of those unsympathetic to attacks on taxation rooted in individual rights also portray the absence of welfare provisions or various immigration policies as “unconscionable.” There is nothing inconsistent about this; the one set of moral claims may be right and the other confused. But the objection then cannot be based on the emergent moral powers of the state. We cannot both reject appeals to individuals rights on the general grounds that morality has nothing to tell us about what may emerge from government institutions, and then do just that, substituting our own preferred brand of interpersonal morality. Once we notice this, support for emergence should shrink drastically, since it will only come from those who think there are no policies of the state that can be rejected on fundamental
moral grounds. The non- emergence assumption per se has no particular ideological leanings.

But doesn’t common-sense morality admit that rights to person and property are not absolute?  Of course; exceptions abound.  Moller sternly emphasizes, however, that these exceptions come with supplemental moral burdens attached.  In his “Emergency” hypothetical, for example, you steal $1000 under duress.  What then?

I propose the following non-exhaustive list of residual obligations for cases like Emergency:

Restitution: although I didn’t do wrong, I must repay the $1,000 if possible, perhaps in reasonable installments.

Compensation: to the extent you are otherwise harmed by my actions, I should attempt to compensate you. For instance, if I smashed your windows getting in or forced you to incur some loss because you had to come home at short notice, I must compensate you at some reasonable rate.

Sympathy: it is incumbent on me to convey, if not an apology for my (permissible) actions, at least sympathy for the harm I have caused you. (“I’m very sorry I had to do that” would be the natural if slightly misleading phrase.) I cannot offer a Gallic shrug at your distress and announce, “I did nothing wrong— it’s your problem” as you survey the wreckage of your home. To do so would exhibit a serious character flaw.

Responsibility: my obligations are not just backward looking, but forward looking. If I can reasonably foresee that some action of mine will put me in the position of facing an emergency that will then render it permissible to harm you, I must take responsibility to avoid such actions if possible. I should not think that I have less reason to take responsibility because I can avoid harms by transferring them to you instead. And failing to take responsibility weakens my claim to impose costs on others when the time comes.

A related principle is worth mentioning as well:

Need: my warrant for harming you depends on how bad my situation is. I cannot harm you if I am doing fine already merely in order to improve my position still further. I may be permitted to take your $1,000 to avert a physical threat, but not in order to make a lucrative investment in order to get even richer.

The political implications are expansive, starting with:

A welfare state justified in virtue of overriding reasons to promote the good of the beneficiaries incurs these residual obligations. Flouting them amounts to unfair burden- shifting. What would it look like actually to satisfy them? For starters, if I were the beneficiary of some emergency medical procedure that a third party compelled others to contribute to— say a state agency— I would be obligated to
repay those charged for my benefit, possibly with some compensatory surcharge. If unable to pay, I would be required to pay in installments, with the agency keeping track of my income and tax records to ensure that my repayment were in line with my means…

Moreover, in repaying, my attitude toward my fellow citizens ought to be one of gratitude for coming to my assistance, as opposed to viewing these services as entitlements due to me as a matter of citizenship. This may seem curious: by hypothesis, the services I received made it past the threshold, meaning that the wealth transfers involved were permissible, and since I am repaying, they won’t
even be net transfers in the long run, barring misfortune. Depending on how badly I needed aid, aiding may even have been obligatory on a third party. Why should I express gratitude for others fulfilling their duties? Consider the Gallic shrug— that supreme expression of indifference at someone else’s misfortunes, while disclaiming all responsibility for rectifying them, frequently encountered
in Parisian cafés. Why shouldn’t I shrug my Gallic shrug at the rich complaining about their tax bill, and point out I merely got what I was entitled to, as would they in a similar situation?

This complaint would be apt if appropriate moral responses were a function solely of whether our acts are required or permissible. But there are all kinds of inappropriate moral responses even when what we have done is permissible or when what the other has done was required. If we are to meet for lunch and an urgent business affair obtrudes itself, I may be permitted to skip our lunch, but
I shouldn’t treat putting you out lightly. What makes a Gallic shrug a vice here is that beneath the outer layer of permissibility there remains an inner structure whereby you have been harmed for my sake, which ought to be a source of concern, leading to some appropriate expression of regret if I am a decent person.  And the same is true in the case of welfare services. This is easy to ignore because
of the opaque veils of state bureaucracy. But behind the faceless agency lie people who are harmed for the sake of benefiting me.

Governing Least manages to be at once readable and dense.  And though you can’t tell from the passages I just quoted, Moller also repeatedly appeals to and grapples with cutting-edge social science.  What, for example, should philosophers think about Greg Clark’s work on the long-run heritability of social status?  Moller’s take will surprise many of you.

Last question: Why do I still prefer Huemer to Moller?  Intellectually, because Huemer’s appeal to individual rights is just more clear-cut than Moller’s objection to “burden-shifting.”  Furthermore, Huemer focuses on the broader case for libertarianism, while Moller self-consciously focuses on opposition to the welfare state.*  And while Moller’s book is beautifully written and well-organized, Huemer’s is stellar on both counts.

Thus, if you’re only going to read one book of libertarian political philosophy, I still say you should read The Problem of Political Authority.  If you’re willing to read two such books, however, read Governing Least.  I loved it.

* Moller: “I also ignore the many noneconomic causes that libertarians have sometimes taken up, like free speech, gay marriage, and drug legalization. This is the fun part of libertarianism and requires little heroism to defend. Many disagree with such policies, but few think their sponsors cruel or ungenerous, while resistance to the welfare state and programs intended to foster economic equality evoke precisely that response.”

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Awareness Often First Step Towards Liberty

People are often their own worst enemies. They listen to those they should ignore or laugh at while they ignore (or laugh at) those they should listen to. It’s always been the same.

Harriet Tubman, the 19th Century abolitionist, is quoted as saying, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed more if only they knew they were slaves.”

It’s the libertarian’s dilemma. People don’t like to notice their chains even when that’s about all it would take to break them. It’s too painful to admit they aren’t as free as they should be, so they don’t.

No one can free you; it’s up to you to free yourself. If someone takes the chains off of you, unless you make up your mind to be free you’ll help put the chains back on the first time you get a little scared or hungry.

You’ll enslave yourself because you fear immigrants you imagine taking jobs you don’t have and don’t want.

You’ll enslave yourself to keep a neighbor from doing things they want to do but you don’t want them to do. Even when they don’t violate you in any way, you’ll violate yourself just to control them.

If it makes you angry to be told you aren’t nearly as free as you imagine; that your liberty is systematically violated every minute of your life by those who tell you how free you are, here’s another quote you need to hear; this one from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”

Your body is yours; no one has a higher claim to it. If you can be prohibited from ingesting something — whether it’s sugar, Cannabis, or bacon — you aren’t free. If you can be forced to act against your interests when doing what you want wouldn’t violate anyone, you aren’t free.

The property you’ve gotten through mutually consensual arrangements with others is yours. If anyone else can claim your property — through such government actions as taxation, licenses, eminent domain, or even property codes — you aren’t free.

If you won’t work to be free — to throw off your chains — when it would be relatively safe and easy, what will you do when it becomes hard? Will you resign your children’s children to an intrusive, controlling police state?

If you go along to get along today, you’ve already answered the question.

You’ve chosen chains over scary liberty.

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“Tax Debt”

There’s no more ridiculous a phrase than “tax debt”.

You can no more have a “tax debt” than you can be in debt to a mugger who didn’t get all the money he wanted from you during the mugging.

Or in debt to a rapist who didn’t get to violently dominate you exactly as he wished.

Or in debt to a disappointed would-be murderer because you didn’t die after he stabbed you 37 times. You don’t owe him your life.

You are not in debt to any archator who didn’t get all he wanted from you. To claim otherwise is insane.

“Taxation” IS theft! Even if you don’t like hearing it and don’t want to admit it. The only debt involved in “taxation” is owed by those who “tax”, not by their victims.

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You Can’t Have Civil Rights Both Ways

It’s interesting to me how many people want their own rights respected, while also wanting other people’s rights to be violated.

People who want their rights as gun owners respected often advocate a massive government welfare program, carried out through taxation and land theft, in order to build a border wall, which violates the right of association and the right of people to move about freely. They also demand a police state where you can be stopped and checked for your papers.

To justify these violations, they’ll insist it’s necessary because of other kinds of welfare and because of laws that all but criminalize self-defense and the uninterrupted possession of the proper tools with which to carry it out. To abolish any violations appears unthinkable.

On the other hand, those who oppose a rights-violating border wall want to continue to violate everyone by funding government handouts and usually want the rights of gun owners to be violated more than they already are.

Then you have those who seem happy to violate themselves. They’ll demand their right to marry whoever they want to marry, but want government permission — even licenses — to do so. Or they want to have their right to use cannabis respected while they beg for this right to be violated through taxation and regulation.

Did I say it’s interesting? I meant disappointing.

It makes one thing perfectly clear: People either don’t understand rights or they don’t respect them.

People aren’t good at consistency, especially when they don’t realize that all rights are connected so thoroughly they might as well be one and the same. How can you expect your rights to be respected if you refuse to respect the rights of everyone else? How much do you really value your own rights if you’ll let others treat them as privileges?

I want your rights respected, no matter who you are.

I don’t want you robbed to fund things I believe are necessary. I don’t want your real estate stolen for projects I want. I won’t hire armed agents to impose things on you that violate your life, liberty, or property even if I suspect you are up to no good. I won’t impose licensing on you.

If you violate me, I have the natural human right to defend myself. Laws can’t change this.

It’s one reason I will never compromise on gun rights.

I’ll stand up for all your rights, consistently.

Your rights matter to me.

Do they matter to you?

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Will Elizabeth Warren Take on the Biggest Monopoly of All?

For a “progressive” presidential candidate, US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is remarkably, well, conservative. Her proposals are neither new nor of the “democratic socialist” variety.  In fact, her aim is, as Matthew Yglesias puts it at Vox, “to save capitalism”  with stock proposals from the first half of the last century.

Much of her campaign platform co-opts Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s  1930s “New Deal” emphasis on social welfare, job creation, infrastructure, and highly progressive taxation to pay for it all — solutions she considers proven, for problems she considers similar.

Her latest proposal, though, takes an earlier Roosevelt as its model. Like  “Trust Buster”  Teddy Roosevelt, she wants to use regulation and antitrust enforcement to “break up monopolies and promote competitive markets.” Her initially announced targets for the idea included Facebook, Google, and Amazon. A couple of days later, she added Apple to  the list.

Interestingly, in her search for monopolies to slay, she ignores the biggest, most powerful, and most lucrative monopoly in America: The US government.

In 2020, the federal government expects revenues of about $3.4 trillion.

That’s more than 60 times what Facebook brought in last year. 25 times as much as Alphabet’s 2018 revenues (Alphabet is Google’s parent company). More than 14 times Amazon’s total 2018 take. Nearly 13 times Apple’s haul.

And then there’s market share. No one really has to do business with Facebook, Google, Amazon, or Apple. There are numerous alternatives to the offerings of each, and many consumers choose those alternatives.

Uncle Sugar, on the other hand, boasts 100% market share for his offerings. You’re required to be his paying customer whether you like it or not. Many of the alternatives are outright illegal, and among the ones that aren’t, you’re required to pay for them in addition to, not instead of,  the federal government’s services.

That’s the very definition of “monopoly.” And it’s the monopoly Elizabeth Warren wants to serve as CEO of.

Is Senator Warren is serious about “breaking up monopolies” and “promoting competitive markets?”

If so, I look forward to her proposal for breaking up the federal government and allowing real alternatives to compete for its market share.

A good start would be 100% federal tax deductibility for the purchase of private sector services that replace the government’s offerings, or a pro rata clawback for binding agreement to not use a particular government service.

Absent such a proposal, seems to me she’s just another greedy monopolist looking to suppress the competition.

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Jared Interviewed on the Liberty Weekly Podcast (42m) – Episode 009

Episode 009: Jared is interviewed by Patrick MacFarlane of the Liberty Weekly podcast. Jared documents his intellectual journey on the way to starting his own podcast. Along the way, they discuss his show topics including the IRS’ own justification for taxation and the danger of libertarian echo chambers.

Listen to Episode 009 (42m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “voluntary contrarian”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc or PayPal.me/everythingvoluntary.

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